What a time to be a fan of professional wrestling. New Japan Pro Wrestling is putting on matches that are getting five stars – or more! Cody Rhodes and The Young Buck’s massive, 10,000-seat show All In sold out in less than an hour. Plus, Ring Of Honor continues to revolutionize the sport, thanks to such marvels as Jay Lethal. The longest reigning ROH World Television Champion EXCLUSIVELY spoke with HollywoodLife.com about his spot-on Ric Flair impression, recreating one of the most classic matches in WrestleMania history, and the exact moment he decided he wanted to be a professional wrestler.
Hollywood Life: Why do you think independent wrestling and wrestling as a whole is so popular right now?
Jay Lethal: I attribute it to many things. Most importantly and not to pat ourselves on the back, but when you can deliver something that is new and fresh, especially in the wrestling business, then that is going to be of interest. It is going to help the wrestlers as a whole. And some cool things that have been happening and again — not to pat ourselves on the back – but partnerships like ours with New Japan. I think that is the catalyst that helps the wrestling business strive right now.
Like I said, when you can bring something to the table that hasn’t been done before and we got these dream matchups, so to speak. Ring of Honor facing guys from New Japan. Who would have ever thought that these matches would have ever happen? – And bang, they are happening. So hopefully, that is something that will help this business and I know other companies are doing that as well. I know Impact is teaming with Lucha Underground to present some matches that haven’t been done before. That is how you really pique the interest of wrestling fans. You have to give them something that they haven’t seen before or something they have seen before but in a way they didn’t think possible or think of before. That would be the main thing helping wrestling right now. I think anyway.
What makes professional wrestling not feel like a job?
I don’t think that I have ever thought of it as a job. Sometimes it is a chore to wake up at four or three in the morning to catch your flight at six-thirty. Other than that, I don’t have that many gripes about it. I am traveling the world and I am living my dream job.
I remember a few years ago in high school. Me and my buddy Nick and a couple others would open up our book bags and wrestling magazines and sometimes we wouldn’t even eat lunch. We would just talk about wrestling and I am doing that now. I am getting to live my dream. So, I would never consider it to this day to be a job. I think I have won the lottery and the coolest part of it is to go to places I have never been to before.
Just this year I went to Australia and I am going back. It is a place I had never been. I fell in love with the UK. I have been there so many times and have stayed there for a month one time. So the traveling is one of the bonuses. I get to see new places and meet people I never dreamed of. What an honor [it is] to travel half way across the world and people know you and they care enough about you to shake your hand at least. That to me is amazing. I never thought of it as a job, just a chore sometimes waking up in the crack of dawn before there is even any sun!
Is there a certain album or thing you do to past the time on the road?
Oh, there are a few things, there is a few things. In fact, on some down time, I like to go see movies and I am also a video gamer. I travel with my Nintendo Switch console and that has helped me pass the time a lot. I really like music too.
I have been stuck on this one band lately and that has been Jethro Tull. I am a big fan of theirs and the old owner of Ring of Honor was a huge fan of Jethro Tull and it rubbed off on me. I was at a few of their concerts and they have music for every mood that you have ever been in. And that is the good thing about music, it really depends on the mood you are in and that will determine what you listen to and they have music for whatever mood you are in.
Would you like to do more movies or television along with wrestling?
Believe it or not, I have never really thought about it. At one time there was someone that did say that I should get headshots done for extra work and acting stuff and that was probably the only time I gave a five-minute thought to it. Of course I didn’t do it but I am fine not branching out. I am fine sticking to wrestling and if it did happen, then I would welcome it and be cool with it. I will not go out of my way to seek it. I have put all my eggs, so to speak, into wrestling and like I said — it would be cool if it happened but I am not looking for that.
You do a great Flair and Macho Man impression, how does one do a great Jay Lethal impression?
Ohhh. I used to have this joke that my impression of the Macho Man [Randy Savage] is spot on and my impression of Ric Flair is pretty good but my Jay Lethal impression needs a little work. I wouldn’t know where to begin.
I know a lot of people do pretend to be me and it sounds like me pretending to be the Macho Man so they are doing an impression of me doing an impression. I wouldn’t be able to help you there. I don’t know how anyone would be able to do it. It might be impossible. [Laughs] You just have to be like a chameleon. I think of myself as a chameleon.
Nostalgia is a main factor in wrestling and in life. So when you are putting together a match with somebody, is there ever a time that you feel like you should do a move for move remake of a classic match? Almost like a remake of a film?
You are going to have to see the footage but Ring of Honor had these random unsanctioned, “anything goes” shows called Night of Hoopla. During one of these shows, I actually put my Black Machismo outfit on and the wrestler Delirious he actually pretended to be the Ultimate Warrior. We did our best version of Warrior versus Savage from [WrestleMania VII] and I think we matched it move to move, moment for moment. You have to see the footage.
You got to see it because it answers your question perfectly. We paid homage to the wrestlers who inspired us. If those two wrestlers didn’t exist, I might not be here. It was our way of paying tribute and the fans understood what was going on and they loved every second of it. It was a cool moment but you couldn’t do it all the time.
For anyone that is new to you, is there a match you’d like for people to see to introduce yourself to them?
The first match I would pick is me against Roderick Strong at [Ring of Honor Death Before Dishonor XIII] were we went to a one hour time limit draw. The second match would be me against Jay Briscoe for the ROH World Championship [at Best In The World 2015]. It’s the match where I won the ROH Championship and the one for nostalgia’s stake
I would say the third would be me against Ric Flair. But me against Ric Flair is something that might not be out in the best of Jay Lethal because for me, it was a life goal and an accomplishment and something to check off my bucket list. But, to compare to other matches I have had, work-rate wise, I don’t know. I almost have to be careful how to word it because I don’t want anyone to think I am saying my match with Ric Flair was no good, but if you compare it to everything else there is no match that I have ever had has had the same feel though.
No match made me smile inside more as a child inside — because my childhood dream was coming true – like the match I had with Ric Flair. So, I hold it in high regard but my in ring work, you are your own worst critic. I look back and think ‘I could of done it better’ or ‘why did I do that,’ you know! But, it is definitely a bucket list match.
What is still on your wrestling bucket list?
No, you are going to jinx me here! You know I have, up until now, never set a goal to do anything I have accomplished. I have just been at the right place at the right time. I mean I would have loved to have stepped into the ring with Ric Flair when I was younger and say that was my dream but never once did I do that!
I thought it would be amazing if I got to do it and then I got to but I never set a goal to wrestle Kurt Angle on pay per view or work with Kevin Nash. I never set a goal to become the Ring of Honor World Champion. To be a face of a company that is world renowned for its in-ring product…I just have been living in the moment and one day at a time. I feel like I won the lottery and have been very lucky and fortunate.
When the camera is on, I say I am the best wrestler in the world. Of course, every wrestler wants to say that but I don’t think I am one of the best wrestlers in the world. I feel like I am very good at what I do and I feel that there are others that are better than me. There are always people better than me and I was always taught that growing up. ‘There will always be someone better than you.’ But, I have been lucky to have had the opportunities and I was able to make it work the best that I could. So, I feel like I have won the lottery. I am afraid to set a goal because I would be jinxing it and it wouldn’t come true. I am too afraid to set a goal for myself.
You have mentioned that you are ‘All In’. What are your hopes for that show?
This is looking like the show of all shows! I am hoping that this will be a yearly event and I know of all the [wrestlers]… that they are going to try their hardest to make sure that this is one of the greatest events ever. So fingers crossed that it is. I am sure it will be amazing. I don’t know what I am doing just yet on the show but I am sure if the Bucks and Cody are involved, then it will be amazing! You could throw all the names on the wall and throw two darts on the wall and wherever it lands they could wrestle each other. That is the type of talent on the show.
What was the match or event that got you into wrestling yourself?
There is a specific match that happened to be on a WrestleMania so I guess WrestleMania is the show that did it for me. It was Bret Hart versus Roddy Piper. Most people think it would be Ric Flair or Macho Man because I love and idolize those guys but what really, really made this for me is Piper versus Bret [at WrestleMania 8] and it was not for the moves. At that time I wasn’t privy to a perfect suplex and what was cool. What was cool was the emotion.
Piper cut a promo and he talked about being at the Hart house and how Stu [Hart, Bret’s father] would make the bologna sandwiches. So they tell you this story about how long they have known each other and how friendly and how Roddy was more jokey and Bret was more serious — but ultimately, it came down to the match and the Intercontinental title. So Bret was all about knowing him for a while but that had to be set aside because business is about the belt. I am literally getting goosebumps thinking about it. It happens every time.
The moment in the match that did it for me in the match is tempers flare and the referee gets knocked out. Piper grabs the ring bell and he was so good with emotion and what he was thinking in his head. It’s something I try to do all the time. He realizes he was frustrated and maybe he shouldn’t do this but he is looking around at the crowd and looking at Bret and the ring bell in his hand and then he picks it up and the whole arena stands up and they are saying ‘don’t do it’ and then there is a great camera shot. It got into Pipers face. He looks at the crowd and then he almost doesn’t do it and then his face turns back to anger.
Then he is going to hit Bret and Bobby “The Brain” Heenan is screaming that ‘he’ll do it!’ That moment right there when he throws the ring bell to the side and slaps the sleeper and then gets rolled up. That whole moment, to me, was when I said ‘this is what I want to do!’ Man I would love to do that! And literally I have goosebumps on my arms right now. That is the moment I wanted to become a professional wrestler.
Jay Lethal can be seen on Ring OF Honor’s Honor United Tour in the U.K., from May 24 to 27. He is also scheduled to appear at NYC Excellence at the Hammerstein Ballroom at June 02. You can also catch him and the rest of ROH by subscribing to Honor Club here.